Bush trades ideas with Iraq panel, still says withdrawal depends on military conditions
WASHINGTON – President Bush traded ideas on Iraq with a bipartisan commission Monday and promised to work with the incoming Democratic majority toward “common objectives.” At the same time, he renewed his opposition to any timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.As Bush met with the Iraq Study Group, the Democrat in line to lead the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, said the administration didn’t see that “we’re getting deeper and deeper into a hole.”Levin and other Democrats called for some troops to come home right away, suggesting that would pressure the Iraqi government into assuming more responsibility.Bush in turn had stern words for the Democrats, less than a week after they won control of both chambers of Congress in midterm elections in which the Iraq war figured prominently.Asked about proposals by Levin and others for a phased troop reduction, Bush said, “I believe it is very important … for people making suggestions to recognize that the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground.”While Democrats agree that troops should leave Iraq sooner rather than later, they remain divided on the specifics. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a contender to become the next majority leader, supports an immediate withdrawal of all troops, while Levin and others favor a slower phased withdrawal and have been reluctant to suggest a firm timetable.Murtha and some others contend violence in Iraq will continue so long as U.S. troops are present, but Levin and others warn that any withdrawal of troops must be done slowly to avoid a collapse in security.The commission, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, has been briefed on the Democrats’ proposals and is considering a range of options. In addition to considering whether there should be any timetable to pull out troops, the panel is studying many other options, including whether to solicit Iran and Syria to help stop the fighting.The president met for more than an hour with the 10-member panel. He was joined by Vice President Dick Cheney, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.The panel then stayed around for a longer session that included other members of the president’s national security team, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.Baker and Hamilton later put out a joint statement. “We were pleased to meet with senior administration officials today and look forward to our consultations with some top Democrats tomorrow. We are working expeditiously to complete our report and recommendations,” the statement said.Bush discussed the meeting with reporters during a picture-taking session in the Oval Office with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.”I was impressed by the questions they asked. They want us to succeed in Iraq, just like I want us to succeed. So we had a really good discussion,” Bush said.As to newly empowered Democrats, he said, “What’s interesting is they’re beginning to understand that with victory comes responsibility, and I’m looking forward to working with the Democrats to achieve common objectives.”White House spokesman Tony Snow described the meeting with the Iraq panel as a “general conversation about the situation there,” rather than a preview of what the group will recommend. “This was not proposal-shopping by the Iraq Study Group,” Snow said.The members asked questions of Bush, and he of them, Snow said, “but there was care taken not to sort of try to prejudge, or also to get a jump on what they are going to do.”Lawmakers barely had begun their postelection session Monday when debate broke out over the war in Iraq and over Democratic proposals to start bringing home U.S. troops.Levin said in a news conference that the military had done what it could and it was up to Iraq’s politicians to find consensus. “We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves,” he said.In addition, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada went to the Senate floor to lend support for a change in Iraq policy.But Republicans shot back, saying they would oppose any timetable because it could cause Iraq to collapse into chaos.Opponents of Levin’s proposal – at least for now – include Sen. John Warner, R-Va., outgoing chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He says Congress must wait until the Baker-Hamilton panel releases its recommendations.Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, two GOP members of the Armed Services Committee, said they would oppose an arbitrary withdrawal of troops. Collins and Graham have both criticized the Bush administration for its handling of the war.Graham recently said Iraq was on the verge of chaos and demanded accountability, but on Monday he stood firm on his position that more troops, not fewer troops, are needed to settle the violence there.Opposing views could deadlock Congress on the matter. While Republicans have the majority until the new session begins in January, they do so by a slim margin. And when Democrats take over, they too will have a razor-thin majority – far short of the 60 votes needed to cut off delaying tactics.Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are lining up behind legislation that would extend an investigative office that unearthed millions of dollars in waste and fraud associated with the rebuilding of Iraq. Republican Collins and Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin introduced legislation that would allow the office to continue through October 2008.Under current law, it will expire in October 2007.Collins and Feingold offered the measure as an amendment to a military construction and veterans’ spending bill that the Senate will debate Tuesday. Collins said she will press for the legislation to be taken up separately as well to improve its chances.Rep. Ike Skelton, the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, introduced a similar bill Monday that would be likely to keep the inspector general’s office in business through 2009 by asking it to investigate another $1.7 billion in Iraq funding.Even before the Iraq Study Group’s work is finished, the panel’s report is widely seen as an opportunity to give the campaign-weary Democratic and Republican parties a chance at consensus – or at least a framework for agreement.Also on Monday, Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, met with the Iraqi prime minister to “reaffirm President Bush’s commitment” to success in Iraq, the government said.Baker, who served as the first President Bush’s secretary of state, has said the report’s recommendations are likely to fall somewhere between the troop withdrawal strategy that Republicans like to say Democrats favor and the stay-the-course policy until recently used by Bush and widely ridiculed by Democrats.